In the 1920s, good pro football players made maybe $250 per game, washed their own uniforms, often slept in their cars and sometimes performed their own dental work.
NFL franchises were in places such as Pottstown, Beloit, Canton, Racine, Rock Island and Decatur.
More than any other man, Red Grange changed all that. Sports historians consider him the player who took the NFL out of high school stadiums and put it into major stadiums.
In 1925, after he had scored 39 touchdowns for the University of Illinois, Grange was contacted by Chicago Bear owner George Halas, who 24 hours later signed him. Grange, 22, was suddenly making more money than Babe Ruth, who was 30 and already had hit 284 home runs.
In his first Bear game, Grange drew 36,000 to Chicago’s Wrigley Field, a huge NFL crowd for the time. Two weeks later, he drew 65,000 to New York’s Polo Grounds.
Suddenly, promoters everywhere were looking for bigger stadiums. In Los Angeles, an all-star team of graduated West Coast collegians was quickly assembled and called the Los Angeles Tigers. An exhibition game was booked for Jan. 16, 1926.
Throughout that week, police had to clear the Biltmore Hotel lobby and front entrance of hundreds of youngsters seeking Grange’s autograph.
Coliseum capacity then was 75,000, and photos indicate the stadium was full for Grange’s game. But official paid attendance was 65,270--at the time the biggest crowd to see a pro football game in America and the largest crowd at the Coliseum.
The game was something of a dud. Grange’s Bears won, 17-7. He didn’t break any long runs, but did gain 75 yards on 16 carries. But Halas had proved his point--that the NFL was now on its way to becoming a major spectator sport in the United States.
For the Coliseum game, Grange’s percentage came to $49,000. In his first three years with the Bears, he earned about $1 million.
Ironically, it would be another 20 years before another pro team, the Rams, would play a game in the Coliseum. The stadium was controlled by USC and UCLA then, and together they denied the NFL use of the stadium until the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946.